"THE JUDGE" — 3 stars — Kholoud al-Faqih, Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi, Husam al-Deen Afanah, Yaqoub Shawwa; not rated; Broadway
Erika Cohn's "The Judge" is an informative portrait of Kholoud al-Faqih, the first female judge in a sharia court in the Middle East, and a compelling view of the Islamic legal system.
Couched in beautiful cinematography that highlights the exotic architecture of Palestine, the documentary follows al-Faqih's story through her early legal background to showcase her unique and groundbreaking position.
For context, "The Judge" explains that while numerous female judges had been appointed to Palestinian civil courts over the years, al-Faqih's appointment to a sharia court was unprecedented and, as you might imagine, controversial.
While the civil courts handle criminal issues, sharia courts are exclusively dedicated to family issues such as domestic abuse, divorce and custody disputes. Throughout "The Judge," we get numerous opportunities to sit in on al-Faqih's court — little more than a normal room in a common office building — and watch her negotiate visitation hours and mediate disputes between various husbands and their wives.
Along the way, we learn quite a bit about Middle Eastern culture and its associated standards. Understanding and interpreting the law is a challenge since the area deals with the influence of several overlapping legal systems, including that from Jordan as well as the Ottoman influence from Egypt. We learn about the structure of families, such as how men are allowed up to four wives, but also how marriage contracts can modify some of those options.
Of course the primary focus is on al-Faqih, who happens to be the sole wife of a lawyer named Yaqoub Shawwa and mother to several children. We spend time with her family, including her father, who proudly declares that education is a weapon for women.
"The Judge" also spends quite a bit of time with Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi, the former chief justice who appointed al-Faqih. He argues that the controversy over her eligibility lies in a gap between cultural tradition and the actual law that's on the books.
The counterpoint comes from Dr. Husam al-Deen Afanah, an academic who represents the faction that resists al-Faqih's presence. As the documentary moves forward and women like al-Faqih struggle to rise through a system that has traditionally been male-exclusive, we see this conflict played out through political machinations, but we also get a feel for the on-the-ground struggles of the people as we sample several of al-Faqih's cases.
While the film is clearly a celebration of al-Faqih's achievement and also highlights other female advancements such as Palestine's first female marriage officiant, it provides a voice for its opposition and uses a tone and approach that make "The Judge" much more engaging than combative. And though it doesn't delve too deeply into subjects like honor killings, it does acknowledge them, and we watch as leaders wrestle to find the best way to bring their culture, their religious beliefs and their legal system into harmony.
Overall, "The Judge" is an interesting watch (and a comparatively short one, at 76 minutes). It is presented with English subtitles.
"The Judge" is not rated, but might earn a PG or PG-13 for some descriptions of violence; running time: 76 minutes.